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Poster: light into ashes Date: May 19, 2011 7:38am
Forum: GratefulDead Subject: Re: Playin: the Post-Retirement Years [long]

Good comment on the drumming change... Though I think the two-drums accompaniment in Playing is more varied than a tap-tap-tap, it's still often random pattering beats. For me anyway, there's a certain 'drag' in the sound of later Playings, partly from the different guitar/organ tones, partly from an increase in aimless noodling. A lot of Playings kind of stay at a low simmer without ever heating up....
That said, it's easy to over-exaggerate the differences between prehiatus & post-hiatus Playings - though the tones were different, they were often still wandering in the same zone. Jerry has a certain familiar "Playing" style just like he has an "Other One" style, etc, especially when he breaks out the wah-wah.

It's hard to say why I bonded with 10/15/83 so; after hearing it alongside a half-dozen other '83 Playings, it just seems to have a certain excitement and hypnotic charge in it, though it doesn't get into any big wildness. After more listening, I could find new favorites!
But I'm certainly no expert in '80s Playings - since I don't have much of a connection to those years, I distinguish less between the good jams and the random plonks & buzzes!
I rarely comment on the MIDI years because I cannot stand MIDI; the band's sound is just hard for me to take.

Anyway, I found a few more Playings from the early '80s I thought were fine versions:
(The '84 one I thought was an especially good example of a "dark & dreamy" '84 jam. Didn't check into '85, as I remember the Playings from that year being mostly disappointing...)

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Poster: bkidwell Date: May 19, 2011 9:05am
Forum: GratefulDead Subject: MIDI and sound-concept vs. reality

Before a few words on midi, I realized I should say something about Keith and Brent. One of the reasons I am less enthusiastic than some about the 77-78 years is how detached and formulaic Keith is. Piano is my instrument, and early Keith is a big part of why I like 72-74 even more than 68-70. Late Keith is either completely inaudible or more banal and repetitive than Welnick's worst. I completely agree with the contemporary perspective that 79 with Brent has more interesting jams than the average for the previous two years. Brent's keyboard style, sounds, and approach is another topic worthy of deep discussion. Too bad about most of his original songs, though...

Anyway, midi - I understand why the rather hard-edged and brittle/canned sound of the sampling synths used in the midi setups is objectionable to some ears, but to me this is analogous to the problem of recording quality of some early tapes. From an audiophile perspective, a show like 6/24/70 is severely flawed, and in comparison to a true acoustic symphony orchestra, the Grateful Dead's 88-95 synth sounds can be grating.

Just as ears can "hear through" the crowd noise and imperfections and perceive the white heat of 6/24/70, I think it is possible to "hear through" the technological limitations of the guitar synths to perceive the sonic idea the band was aiming for. I hear the Feedback jams of 1968 and the midi-spaces of the 90s to be aiming at the same musical ideal, a kind of cosmic sound-sculpting, a surrealistic orchestra.

I think from the band's perspective, the midi synths were a way to get closer to the sounds they had been trying to make all along! I think the ideal that each musician could, in theory, produce absolutely any sound they could imagine was the goal, and Feedback, Phil's amazing sonic effects with the Wall of Sound, and midi-controlled samples were all aspects of that dream.

From my perspective, all rock music has a rather harsh sound in comparison to a symphony orchestra or solo acoustic piano. A violin is a much subtler, more expressive instrument than the electric guitar - but this doesn't invalidate the excitement that electric instruments can generate! The dynamic, driving energy of a 68 Alligator->Caution wouldn't be improved by performance on flute and lute. Similarly, the freedom to explore a wider universe of timbres using synthesizers enabled the exploration of new musical territories. A Phil quote:

"The resulting timbral combinations, especially in the space segment of our show, began to border on the surreal. Bob would be playing some kind of wheezing calliope sound, Jerry a trumpet tone that was just a little askew, and my favorite was a flute sound that when played in the very low register virtually defined the term sub-contrabass piccolo."

Phil had always been inspired by composers like Charles Ives who would juxtapose two completely different pieces of music at the same time, and he dragged Jerry to Wagner's epic Ring Cycle in 1985, where brief melodies that represent the story of heroes and gods are interwoven across 4 nights - just like a multi-night Dead series. I am not trying to argue that any given way of hearing is right or wrong, but to my ears, the best of the midi-era Playins, Dark Stars, and Spaces are the closest in improvisational quality to music the band played in 73-74.